She is a cousin, in-law. My wife feels her death more than I do, I'm sure, because she is--was--relation. What's more, my wife remembers, very sadly, the early death of this woman's father, an untimely event that caused her family great grief years and years ago, an early tragic chapter in this young woman's story.
But there's more. She married a great kid, and the two of them left for a relatively new Christian high school in Wisconsin, where they lived for a time. One morning when he was playing basketball, he fell over. A heart attack. I don't even know if he was thirty. From a distance, it seems not.
Eventually, she came back home to live here, a very young widow with three little boys. Eventually, she found a new husband, and, eventually, the two of them had a little boy of their own.
This morning, she's gone, victim of a brain aneurysm that took her just as surely, if not quite as quickly, as her first husband. She was just fifty years old.
As a cousin, I knew her somewhat; as a student, thirty years ago, I may have known her--at least back then--somewhat better. Writing teachers know more, perhaps, than math teachers; writing teachers know students, frequently, from the inside of their experience, although I won't lay claim to knowing this particularly young lady, thirty years ago, any better than any other students in English 101 that year.
But it is, oddly enough, as a student that I remember her best, more so than an in-law, a cousin. And since the new school term--close to forty of them behind me--is rapidly approaching, I can't help but think again about a bunch of 19-year-old kids facing me, first year of college, few of them having chosen to be in an intro class, most of them already hating what's coming--essay writing.
I don't like to think that my being 60 makes me any more serious, more dour, less joyful than I was at say, half my age; but I'm guessing that such an assertion can't be all wrong because sometimes I wish my students were a little more mature; sometimes I wish they'd all suffered a little bit and weren't as childish.
I never call in the bears like Elijah did when he got mocked, but sometimes I feel Jeremiah rising up in me when I know they could and should do their work with more purpose and consistency. But then I remember who I was and get down off my high horse.
Nonetheless, what I see before me, at the death of this young, devout Christian woman, is an image of her as a tall and thin college freshman, sitting in the second seat from the back, left side of an upstairs classroom at a college where I still teach, a classroom where, in a month or so, I might just look over a whole new bunch.
And what I feel this morning, the morning of her sudden death, is what I've felt far more often as I've aged--that is, a desire to say to all of those kids I face, "You know, you ought to remember the woman who once sat right there, right in that very chair, and was just like you. She fell in love here at this place, got married, moved away, then buried her husband. And now, she too is gone. If I could have told her that life would carry such immense miseries back then, . . ."
And then the Jeremiad stops, right there. I don't know what I'd say.
But what if I'd start the year with that story--first day of class, tell them about one of them who sat right there 30 years ago, a whole life story? What if I'd tell them they ought to take heed of time, take heed of life, of what's real, of what's important? They ought to be less childish, more adult.
"What if we'd come back and tell our brothers about hell?" some hot folks once asked the Lord in one his parables. "How about you give us a chance to tell them the truth?--then they'll miss all of this." Remember that story?
Christ said, "They won't listen. They already have the law and the prophets."
And neither will my students. If I do the Jeremiah thing, they'll hit the off button so fast the screen will darken before the machine even cools down.
Some things you just can't say. Oh, you can say them all right, but no one will listen. Some things can only be experienced. Some things can only be shown and not told.
Like immense tragedy.
And, strangely enough, like grace. Same thing.
Besides, maybe it's a good thing they don't know what's coming down the pike. Maybe it's a good thing none of us possess truly prescient crystal balls. Maybe it's a good thing we don't know, and maybe it's a good thing that young people, by nature, see visions.
Let 'em be kids, like I was. Call off the bears.
There will be time enough for funerals. And they will come.